Buyer behavior has changed in the digital age
Over the past decade, we’ve seen a monumental shift in how consumers across all industries (B2B and B2C) make their purchasing decisions. Rather than reaching out to companies and traditional sales teams to answer their questions, buyers now turn to the internet to do their research.
In fact, on average, 70% of a buying decision is already made before a prospect even talks to a company, and that percentage will more than likely increase as technology continues to advance. This means companies can no longer do business “the way it’s always been done,” with sales and marketing teams operating in silos, and where sales is the driver of business and marketing is the expense.
The companies that have successfully doubled (or even tripled) their annual revenue in this new digital age -- like Aquila Commercial, Yale Appliance, and Mazzella -- all share one thing in common.
🔎 Related: Case studies of real-world success with They Ask, You Answer
Their digital sales and marketing teams have embraced They Ask, You Answer -- a business philosophy that begins with an obsession to answer the question: “What are my customers thinking?” -- so they can position themselves as the foremost teacher and go-to resource for buyers in their given industry.
But where did They Ask, You Answer come from?
The origin of They Ask, You Answer
The year was 2008.
As part owner of Virginia-based River Pools and Spas, Marcus Sheridan knew how challenging growing a small business could be. However, after years of ups and downs, 2008 started off with promise. It looked as if the River Pools and Spas team were going to turn the corner, and sales were higher than they’d ever been.
Then, overnight, everything changed.
The stock market crashed. And within 48 hours, they suffered more than $250,000 in losses, as customers who were concerned about the future of the economy opted not to move forward with their pool installation projects.
On the brink of financial ruin, Marcus knew they needed a miracle. They needed more leads and sales than ever before if they were going to survive. Otherwise, they would go out of business in a matter of months.
🔎 Related: Meet Marcus Sheridan
As Marcus considered their options, he reflected on the changes he had observed within himself, as well as others around him.
Of course, the “old school ways” of advertising through television, newspapers, the Yellow Pages, and so on, no longer worked. Now, he turned to the internet for everything. And if he had a question about anything, he asked Google.
Particularly if he was considering buying something.
That’s when Marcus realized he and his partners were going to have to fully embrace the internet if they were going to save River Pools and Spas from bankruptcy.
As he began his research, Marcus encountered a number of new terms that went over his head, as a pool guy -- inbound marketing, content marketing, business blogging, etc.
In simpler terms, he realized he needed to stop chasing customers and start attracting them instead (inbound marketing). Moreover, he needed to teach his customers and solve their problems online, so as to earn buyer trust (content marketing).
Then it came to him:
“Marcus, forget all of these fancy words and marketing terms. Just answer people’s questions.”
He shared this with his partners, and they all resolved in that moment to become teachers. The best teachers about fiberglass swimming pools.
They started by brainstorming every question they had received about fiberglass swimming pools over the previous nine years they had been in business. Then, over the coming months, Marcus and his partners wrote articles or filmed videos that answered every single one of those questions and published them.
And whenever they were asked questions during a sales appointment they had not already answered on their website, they would immediately create an article or video that did just that. The answers they provided, however, were not short. They were detailed and approached with a teacher-like mindset, where they sought to be as honest and as thorough as possible.
Thus, their new mantra of “They Ask, You Answer” was born.
Not only were they able to save their business with this new philosophy, River Pools and Spas also now has the most trafficked fiberglass pools website in the entire world.
But Marcus had no idea his discovery of They Ask, You Answer would empower countless other businesses around the world to achieve success and growth they never thought possible.
📚 Buy the book: They Ask, You Answer, Second Edition
The true definition of They Ask, You Answer
Although many of us understand how much consumer behavior has changed in the digital age, as businesses, we still insist on talking about ourselves -- our solutions, our accolades, our sterling reputations -- online, in our branding, and in sales conversations.
Our buyers want to be fed information, yet companies insist on continuing to ignore their questions, fears, and thoughts. It’s a sad irony.
Fundamentally, when we say, "They Ask, You Answer is a business philosophy," what we mean is that it’s not a set of arbitrary digital marketing tactics.
Rather, They Ask, You Answer is an approach to communication, company culture, and the way a company sells to their buyers that puts this self-focused way of doing business to bed once and for all.
And that obsession with what your buyers are thinking is really an obsession with understanding what your buyers are searching, asking, and feeling. (Most organizations think they have a clear understanding of what their buyers are searching, asking, and feeling, but most do not.)
Like River Pools and Spas, companies that follow They Ask You Answer view it as a moral obligation to answer any and every question their buyers have -- no matter how good, bad, or ugly a question may seem.
The discovery of “The Big 5” topics guaranteed to drive traffic, leads, and revenue
After six months of publishing between four and five pieces of content per week on their website, the River Pools and Spas team were already seeing their hard work pay off. Leads were up, and they had even closed a few sales with more educated buyers.
Still, Marcus was curious about what was working (and what wasn’t) with their new strategy of answering consumer questions on their website.
After looking through their website analytics, he made a startling discovery. There were five categories of content topics that moved the needle with new buyers more than any other, rendering the greatest amount of traffic, leads, and sales:
Pricing and cost
“How much does _____ cost?”
Think about the last time you tried to find the pricing for something online, and you couldn’t find any. It’s frustrating, right? It doesn’t matter if what you sell is highly customized, if you’re worried about your competitors knowing what you’re charging, or scaring away potential prospects — you can and must talk about pricing.
“What are the negative issues or problems with _____?”
You need to address their problems and your problems. “Their” problems refers to problems your buyers may be experiencing. “Your” problems refers to problems with the solutions you offer.
“How does it compare to that other _______ that we’re looking at?”
When potential buyers are at the point where they’re evaluating solutions, they will actively seek out content that provides head-to-head comparisons between their choices.
“What is everyone saying about ______?”
As buyers are considering making a purchase, they want to know how others feel about the purchases they made. If real people are raving about the purchase, they're more likely to buy. If others are complaining about the purchase, they may avoid it. If you can write honest reviews of the products you sell (and even don't sell), you'll connect with more prospects looking for help making purchases.
Best in class
“And what is the best _____?”
Think about the last time you made a big purchase and researched it beforehand online. Did you use words like best or top as part of your search terms? Most likely, right? We want to put all our options on a spectrum from worst to best and carefully review those on the far right of the spectrum. That’s why “best of” list content is so powerful.
🔎 Related: 23 world-class blog post examples (including The Big 5)
Organizations around the world that have adopted They Ask, You Answer have proven, however, that this trend was not specific to the swimming pool industry. In fact, “The Big 5” are the most profitable topics for any company, whether they are B2B or B2C.
That’s because, as consumers, these are the topics we obsess over.
Again, these are the questions businesses tend to avoid -- especially if answering them would involve us having to address cost, problems, and competitors.
But a willingness to honestly and transparently answer all of these questions -- no matter how uncomfortable it may seem at first -- will have a profound influence on your business and your bottom line.
You must talk about money.
Your buyers likely already know your prices vary, but you can talk to them about what variables influence cost and/or could provide them a range of prices to give them an idea of what they can expect. You won’t scare them away; this is how you build trust.
In fact, River Pools and Spas now attributes more than $3,000,000 in sales to a single article -- “How Much Does a Fiberglass Pool Cost?”
You must also talk about problems.
Anyone who is about to make a purchase -- especially a large one -- is more concerned about what will go wrong rather than what will go right. For example, let’s say you’re thinking about buying a particular car. You would likely go online and search for a “bad review” of that car model, right? You don’t want to be stuck with a dud.
Finally, you must talk about your competition.
At some point, your buyers will learn who your competitors are -- relying on consumer ignorance is not a viable business strategy. So, you might as well have them learn about your competitors on your website.
It’s a bold approach, but learn from River Pools and Spas. They wrote that article about the best pool builders in Richmond, and they were rewarded with more than $150,000 in initial sales.
🔎 Related: How to effectively write about your competitors in your content
The 7 key benefits of They Ask, You Answer for sales teams
Although what has been described thus far may sound like a marketing initiative, there are seven key benefits of They Ask, You Answer for sales teams.
1. Producing content will force you to understand your buyers as you never have before, as well as how they think.
In order to be great at what some call “content marketing,” you need to know exactly what your buyers are thinking, feeling, and searching. You must understand their worries, fears, and desires. When companies force their people to think about these things, their ability to empathize with their prospects will never be higher -- which is a powerful thing in the sales process.
2. Producing content is a downright magical process for sales messaging.
Sales professionals have not only heard most of the questions a prospect could ever ask, they have gotten really good at answering them. So, when they are involved in the content production process, they get even better at answering questions, explaining ideas and concepts in intelligible ways, and getting the results they’re looking for.
3. Your content becomes the definitive guide for all of your trainings, messaging, and more.
The more content you create, the more articles, videos, and more you’ll have at your disposal for current and future employees to use as training materials. It will help them learn company doctrines, philosophies, and so on more effectively and more efficiently.
4. How powerful assignment selling can be in the sales process, shortening the sales cycle with more educated buyers as key results.
Assignment selling is simply the process of using content created in-house (text, video, audio) that is educational about your products or services, with the purpose of resolving major concerns or questions of your buyers during the sales process and before sales appointments.
It may seem bold to give your potential buyers homework, but you will be rewarded with better educated buyers and an opportunity for “bad fit” buyers to disqualify themselves.
🔎 Playbook: How to integrate content into your sales process
5. Your sales team can learn about what your potential buyers care about before they even enter the sales funnel.
Thanks to advanced analytics tools and platforms, sales teams can now see every article a lead read and every website page they looked at before they filled out a form. Not only will this allow you to see what specifically they’re interested in and/or what their greatest concerns are, you will also see how much they’ve already engaged with your site, before a single sales conversation is had. That’s an incredible amount of lead intelligence right at your fingertips.
6. With content, trust can be built with a sales rep (and the entire company) before the first conversation.
With more education happening before you speak with a potential buyer, your sales reps can spend more time during meetings having more qualified and deep conversations specific to the needs of the individual or organization they are speaking to.
That allows them to do what they do best -- sell.
7. Great content means more trust, more trust means shorter sales cycles, shorter sales cycles means happier sales teams...
By empowering your potential buyers to educate themselves through the content you create and publish on your website and elsewhere online, you give your sales teams the gift of time. Time to spend on more qualified leads, as well as time to spend with families and loved ones. Additionally, with more educated buyers, they will find that those more qualified leads will close deals faster.
How to get started with They Ask, You Answer the right way
If you want to change the culture of your company, understand it does not happen overnight. You cannot simply send out an email that says, “Going forward, we will be answering the questions of our buyers thoroughly and fully.”
It is a process. But if you commit to this process, you will not become one of those cautionary tale organizations that struggle to embrace this philosophy and, ultimately, drive incredible revenue growth.
- Step 1: Hold an Inbound Culture Workshop
Your company can become the most trusted resource in your industry or field, and your people can be excited to participant in the creation of remarkable inbound content to help you achieve that vision. But to help your people catch the vision of the what, the how, and (most of all) the why of inbound, you need to bring everyone together with this workshop.
🔎 Related: Learn more about Inbound Culture Workshops from IMPACT
- Step 2: Define Your Content Mission Statement
A content mission statement is a single sentence that provides company-specific context to that idea of being the best teachers in a given area. In a way that is concise and easy to understand, it will tell someone the who, the what, and (often) the where. For example, “We want to be the premier source of accounting information for small business owners throughout the Washington, D.C., area.”
🔎 Related: How to create a content mission statement for your company
- Step 3: Hire a Content Manager
Your content manager is the “owner” of your inbound and content efforts, so they don’t get deprioritized and stuff actually gets done. They can go by many names -- chief content officer, content marketing manager, content manager, chief storyteller, brand journalist, inbound marketing manager, etc. You can call them whatever makes sense for your company; the important thing is that you have this dedicated person within your organization.
🔎 Related: Why you need a content manager on your digital marketing team
- Step 4: Conduct a Content Brainstorm
It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, your buyers want to answer as many of the questions they have about a product or service as possible before they buy, so they can feel confident they’re making an informed purchasing decision they won’t regret later. Brainstorm on your own, but also brainstorm with all of your customer-facing teams.
- Step 5: Create a Content Calendar & Stick to It
At first, you should plan to publish between two and three new pieces of content per week. Your editorial content calendar should be owned by your content manager, and what it looks like will be entirely up to you and your team. The important thing is that you have one, regardless of what it looks like.
Is this a lot of work? Yes.
They Ask, You Answer is a philosophy that requires commitment to a new way of doing business. But it is also how businesses of all sizes and industries across the globe have achieved remarkable results.
Yale Appliance CEO Steve Sheinkopf made it company policy for everyone in his company to be a content producer -- including sales and himself:
“People would often question why the CEO of a company was working so hard on producing content when there were over 140 employees that could have been handling it.”
Now, Yale Appliance doesn’t spend any money on traditional advertising. And they’re growing.
“We’re now talking about lead generation of over 100,000 leads a year. Now, instead of just having one store, we have two, with a third going up soon. Our revenues are now up to $117 million with better margins.”